Other Famous Writer From Cleveland:
Harvey Pekar and American Splendor
might say that Harvey Pekar has lived a life right out of
a comic book. And they'd be right, except that the comic book
is one he wrote himself.
the early seventies, Harvey has published stories taken from
his own life. Though he himself has no drawing ability, this
slightly grouchy file clerk enlists giants in cartooning,
including Robert Crumb, to illustrate, and gained a sizable
following that can't get enough of his extraordinary tales
of ordinary life.
his work had won an American Book Award, sparked stage adaptations,
and earned him appearances on Letterman, Harvey preferred
to keep his day job. For thirty-five years, he worked at a
Cleveland VA Hospital, finally retiring in 2001. Appropriately
enough, it's a scene captured in the film adaptation of his
a pioneer, Harvey seems uncomfortable. "I didn't invent
autobiography," he demurs, "What I think I did do,
which was pretty unusual, was to place as much emphasis as
I did on the mundane follies of everyday life. To look for,
maybe, heroism there. To look for humor in everyday life as
well. That's where I think I made an impact."
As a boy,
he had a brief obsession with collecting comics. "I got
sick of it," he rasps (a recurring problem that legend
says was caused by constant yelling at people). "I mean,
I could see the formulaic side of it back when I was ten,
eleven years old."
Harvey loved collecting, and his interests turned to jazz.
Through that obsession, he began writing as a critic in 1959,
and among his fellow fans was a young Robert Crumb.
a result of his friend's work in underground comics, Harvey
says, he started to see the possibilities.
could do anything that film could do," he offers. "And
I wanted in on it."
took Harvey some time to decide just what he wanted to do.
theorized for maybe ten years about doing comics," he
he laid out some stories with crude stick figures and showed
them to Crumb and another artist, Robert Armstrong. Impressed,
they both offered to illustrate, and soon Pekar's story "Crazy
Ed" appeared in Crumb's The People's Comics.
of his work grew to the point that Harvey felt confident launching
his own book. In 1976, he self-published the first issue of
American Splendor, filled with stories of his day-to-day
existence and takes on his co-workers. Despite some unflattering
portrayals, nobody took offense, nor tried to change his views
I was working, a comic would come out, and then they'd say
'how come I'm not in this?'" he remembers. "But
they wouldn't try and do outrageous things. It didn't get
the main character, an often cantankerous version of Harvey,
he only hopes that nobody would confuse the comic book with
the man. "I would think he'd think I'm pretty similar,
though," he reluctantly admits.
he often lost money publishing American Splendor, the
book brought him other rewards. A fan and comic book writer
herself, Joyce Brabner, contacted Harvey in 1983. Within two
days of meeting face to face, they married.
then, they have been each other's strength, though when asked
if Joyce has influence his work, Harvey replies, "not
so much." However, the two have collaborated on one book,
Our Cancer Year, which chronicles Harvey's first battle
with lymphoma in 1990. (It recurred again last year, but he
Harvey tired of doing everything himself. Since 1992, Dark
Horse Comics has taken care of production on American Splendor.
Horse? "Because he called me," says Dark Horse editor-in-chief
Diana Schutz. "It's really that simple."
she's quick to add, "ultimately that kind of decision
here at Dark Horse rests with Mike Richardson, the owner and
publisher. Mike also was a huge fan."
she loves her participation on the book, Schutz admits that
self-described obsessive compulsive Harvey leaves her little
talk to me a little bit about it beforehand," she says,
"but generally he writes the stories as they come to
him. He kind of figures out who he might like to draw them.
Every now and then I kind of raise my hand and say, hey, how
about this person?"
laughs. "I fix Harvey's spelling mistakes
make that many, though."
American Splendor that huge a force in the marketplace?
he outsell Star Wars? No," she continues. "I
think Harvey has a very dedicated core group of readers that
would seek out and buy American Splendor no matter
who was publishing it."
release of the film, which won awards at both Sundance and
Cannes, that core group may grow larger, and be eager to celebrate
this unassuming retiree.
attention, however, keeps Harvey from doing what he loves
best. And retiring from the VA doesn't mean that he will rest
on his laurels. Promoting the film, however, has interfered
with his plans.
shrugs his shoulders. "I really need to establish a routine,
you know, get up in the morning," he grumbles. "I'd
just like to get back to writing more comics."